[MUSIC PLAYING] JACQUELINE RIFKIN: My name is Jacqueline Rifkin. I'm an assistant professor of marketing at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. As a consumer psychologist, I'm interested in how consumers process their decisions and experiences and the meanings they draw from everyday interactions with companies, products, and other consumers. I'm motivated to understand how different interpretations of the same experience can shape well-being, both individually and on a societal level.
A few years ago, I was at a conference. And I overheard someone refer to Tulane University as Jewlane University because of how many Jewish students there seem to be there. I brought this up with my co-author who had a similar experience. Her hometown had a homophobic nickname to represent how many gay people seem to live there. These labels are not only offensive. They're also factually wrong. Neither Tulane University nor my colleague's hometown are even close to being majority Jewish or gay. So where do these perceptions come from?
In our recent paper, my co-authors and I found that people tend to exaggerate the presence of certain kinds of groups, specifically groups whose beliefs and worldviews seem different from the mainstream. The literature calls these groups symbolically threatening groups. And this is one of the reasons why so many minority groups face discrimination.
Unlike with non-threatening groups, we found that when a group seems different or threatening, we tend to judge them to be more pervasive, so larger in size, having more influence over a space, or even growing in number. For example, we found that people who feel more threatened by the prospect of Black Americans living in their neighborhood also judged that group racially as a group that is growing in size.
Why is this happening? We know that people have evolved to exaggerate potential threats in their environment in order to stay safe. For instance, if you are camping in the woods, it would be much safer to assume that a snake is extremely dangerous and poisonous and be wrong about that than it is to assume the snake is harmless and be wrong about that. While this kind of exaggeration makes sense in the face of danger, we found that people are making these same biased exaggerations in everyday social spaces just because we encounter people who think and live differently from us.
If we zoom out, this phenomenon, the exaggeration of minority groups, may help explain the psychology of white flight, which is when white residents leave an area that is deemed to be too diverse. It could also explain how disempowering policies like redlining and gerrymandering are justified and reinforced over time.
And of course, this phenomenon can also be used for public fear mongering when certain political figures peddle theories like the great replacement theory to spark fears that minority groups are growing in number to the point where they'll eventually outnumber white Americans. And tragically, we know that this kind of misinformation leads to hate crimes and violence.
It's important to note, though, that we can all fall into this trap. Our studies show that it's not just happening for certain political leanings or certain minority groups. So it's critical to slow down and check our snap judgments whenever we're sizing up new environments and the people within them. On the bright side though, being aware that we have a bias is the first step in reducing how much it affects us.
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People evolved to exaggerate potential threats in their environment; overcaution could assure safety in the wild. Biased exaggerations in everyday social spaces, however, are inaccurate and damaging. People who feel threatened by “groups whose beliefs and worldviews seem different from the mainstream” perceive these groups as growing in size. These inaccuracies are socially and culturally damaging, and are not distinct to any one identity or political group. “We can all fall into this trap,” Rifkin says. “It’s critical to slow down and check our snap judgments whenever we’re sizing up new environments and the people within them.”